‘Scanners’ at 40: Michael Ironside’s Explosive Performance as One of Cronenberg’s Best Villains

Forty years later, the one thing people remember most about David Cronenberg‘s Scanners is its iconic head exploding head scene. It’s understandable; it’s a gory, shocking moment in an otherwise more subdued, cerebral thriller with a fairly complicated plot. That explosive onscreen kill serves as an unforgettable introduction to the film’s villain, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside). In the decades since Scanners‘ January 14, 1981 release, Ironside has delivered many memorable movie villains and his turn as Revok is chief among them. What makes his portrayal all the more impressive is that Revok initially wasn’t going to be a large part.

Cronenberg has referred to Scanners as one of his most frustrating and challenging films to make because the movie was rushed into production without a finished script. The filmmaker had to write the story as he went, providing all sorts of unexpected challenges. In an interview with Empire from 2016, Ironside revealed that he’d been “hired for one day’s work on that film, which was the flashback sequence, and David started rewriting because he didn’t have a full script.” Cronenberg fleshed out Revok’s character as he went along. 

The flashback sequence in question shows Revok explain to a medical professional that he drilled a hole in his forehead to relieve the pressure and let the “voices” out. It’s a disturbing revelation that says a lot about Revok’s power and determination. Ironside plays the scene with a sadistic calm as if self-trepanning is normal and easy. That alone would’ve successfully sold how dangerous the Scanners could be. Luckily Cronenberg expanded the character and gave Ironside a larger role to play in the battle to take down ConSec and lead a new generation of Scanners.

Even in that iconic exploding head scene, Ironside imbues Revok with a cool arrogance, making him such a fantastic foil for protagonist Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack). Revok infiltrates a marketing event and volunteers to assist with a ConSec Scanner’s display of power, the latter utterly unaware that Revok himself is also a Scanner. The scene builds in intensity until that brain-splattering second that leaves the audience fleeing in terror. All of it ultimately proves to be part of a grander scheme.

Like the best cinematic baddies, Revok believes in his cause. Whereas private military company ConSec aims to capture and control all Scanners, Revok is working to liberate and lead them. He’s the horror sci-fi equivalent of Marvel’s Magneto. In other words, Revok may have a disturbing mean streak and absolute arrogance, but Ironside plays him with righteous anger. This is a character who’s justified in their feelings but takes it to an extremely dark place. Revok’s unparalleled power further corrupts that rage.

Revok marked one of Ironside’s earliest roles in a prolific career dotted with numerous baddies and villainous turns. The actor excels at tough-guy roles; his adept ability to portray icy, cunning characters makes him well-suited for chilling villains or fierce allies. Revok falls in the former category, imbuing much-needed stakes and danger in a cerebral thriller that spends most of its focus on a much meeker protagonist. Comparatively, Ironside isn’t on screen all that much, but he makes every scene count. The exploding head a mere fifteen minutes into the runtime remains an all-timer for practical effects reasons. It’s also an iconic and vulgar display of power by one of Cronenberg’s best villains.

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